My daughter and I are planning a trip to Cornwall in the UK, so I’ve been doing some research and found a traditional Cornish food, the Cornish pasty. That’s pasty with a short “a”, so it rhymes with “nasty” rather than “tasty”. I’ve never had a true Cornish pasty, but as I’m planning to try one while I’m there, I’m hoping they are tasty.
From my voracious reading of novels, when I think of Cornwall I picture smuggling and tin mining. The southwest tip of England was historically sparsely populated and has a whole lot of coastline and cliffs dotted with caves, which made it a perfect location for smuggling. And since approximately 2000 BCE, people have been mining tin, copper and arsenic. Originally it was available on the surface, above ground, but eventually they had to dig deep for it.
Which brings me back to the pasty. It is very difficult to trace the history and ascertain the origin of any particular food. As I mentioned in this post about fruitcake, old recipes have such a variety of ingredients that even if the general concept is the same, it’s almost impossible to historically trace one specific food.
Basically a pasty is a filling wrapped in some type of dough and baked. As you can imagine, variations of that have been created since people figured out how to make dough. According to the Cornish Pasty Association, some of the first references to pasties appeared during the 13th century. By the 18th century it was firmly established as a staple of poorer Cornish families.
Besides being able to use whatever filling a family could afford, miners and farmers discovered that the pasty was the perfect convenience food. It was easy to carry and the dough protected the filling so that it didn’t make a mess. It could also contain enough calories and nutrition so that a worker could make it through the day. The crimped edge was like a handle that could be thrown away so that the miner didn’t have to worry about ingesting any potentially dangerous substances that were on their hands.
When the mining industry started to falter in Cornwall, experienced miners moved on to other countries, taking their pasty tradition with them. Today many countries, including the USA, have their own pasty heritage.
And that brings me to the Cornish Pasty Association, formed in 2002 to protect the quality and tradition of the Cornish pasty. I wasn’t aware that since 1993 the European Union has had what is called the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). This is a designation for food that is unique to a specific geographic area, such as Black Forest ham. This protects the quality and reputation of a food by protecting it from imitation by others. So you can’t raise a pig in Spain and call the meat Black Forest ham, and you can’t make a pasty in France and call it a Cornish pasty.
The Cornish pasty achieved PGI status in 2011. To be labeled a Cornish pasty, rather than just a pasty, it must be prepared in Cornwall using a traditional recipe, although it can be baked anywhere. A true Cornish pasty can only include beef, potatoes, onions, swedes and light seasoning. If you add peas, then it is no longer a Cornish pasty, no matter where it was made. And there are strict rules about the ratio of beef to vegetables, requiring no less than 12.5% beef. The filling must be uncooked when it is put in the dough, and the dough itself must be shaped into a “D” with the crimped edge to the side, not on top. If you buy a Cornish pasty anywhere in the European Union, you can be sure that it is a traditional Cornish pasty created in Cornwall.
But that only applies in the European Union. Buy a Cornish pasty in any other country, like the USA, and you may find peas. Or carrots. And your Black Forest ham may come from Iowa. Be careful out there.